'Ms. Marvel' head writer says the show is a deeply personal superhero story
Kamala Khan isn't your typical Marvel superhero. Sure, she battles bad guys. But she's also a Muslim high school student living with her Pakistani-born parents in Jersey City — which makes Ms. Marvel the first show or film in the Marvel universe to feature a Muslim hero.
Other segments from the episode on July 19, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. The Marvel Universe's first Muslim superhero to have her own comic book and TV series was brought to the screen by our guest, Bisha K. Ali. The miniseries "Ms. Marvel" stars Iman Vellani as the teenage Kamala Khan, who discovers she has superpowers. It concluded last Wednesday on Disney+, but all the episodes are streaming. Bisha K. Ali spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger, who will tell you more.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Kamala Khan is a teenage girl living in Jersey City, juggling the sometimes conflicting demands of high school, social life and her family. Her Pakistani-born parents, especially her mom, Muneeba, are worried that she's growing up too quickly. Kamala is an artist, a daydreamer and a fan of superheroes. She's especially enamored of Captain Marvel. She even goes to a convention dressed as Captain Marvel where she discovers she herself has superpowers.
How she gets those superpowers is too much to explain here, but they are part of her family history, a history fractured by the traumatic creation of Pakistan during partition in 1947. Bisha K. Ali is the head writer of "Ms. Marvel." She's from England, but her parents, like Kamala Khan's, came from Pakistan. Before "Ms. Marvel," she wrote for another Marvel show, "Loki," as well as for Mindy Kaling's TV miniseries, which was a reboot of "Four Weddings And A Funeral," and the Netflix show "Sex Education."
Ali's also worked as a stand-up comedian and often co-hosted the comedic podcast "The Guilty Feminist." Let's start with a clip from "Ms. Marvel's" first episode. Here, Kamala is talking with her friend Bruno, played by Matt Lintz. Her parents don't want her to go to AvengerCon, the convention I mentioned above. She's not doing well in school, and she's feeling pretty down.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MS. MARVEL")
IMAN VELLANI: (As Kamala Khan) Maybe they're right. Maybe I spend too much time with fan art and costumes and with my head stuck in fantasyland, so...
MATT LINTZ: (As Bruno Carelli) Who is they?
VELLANI: (As Kamala) My mom, my teachers, Mr. Wilson, everyone. You know, there was a girl in our neighborhood who decided she wanted to go backpacking around Europe. And you would literally think she joined a death cult given the way all the aunties just gossip about her.
LINTZ: (As Bruno) I'm lost. What does that have to do with AvengerCon?
VELLANI: (As Kamala) 'Cause dressing up as Captain Marvel's weird.
LINTZ: (As Bruno) No, it's not. It...
VELLANI: (As Kamala) And it's childish, and I know that, OK? And let's be honest, it's not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.
LINTZ: (As Bruno) Sure they do. You're Kamala Khan. If you want to save the world, then you're going to save the world.
BRIGER: That's a scene from "Ms. Marvel." Our guest today is the head writer of the show, Bisha K. Ali. Bisha, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BISHA K ALI: Thank you so much for having me.
BRIGER: Yeah, if we're going to put aside the superhero stuff for a second, the show seems to really be about a teenage girl trying to find - as you say, like, find her place in the world. Were you at all concerned that, OK, we don't want to make this about she's rejecting, like, the culture or tradition she comes from, but that there's a balance there between accepting, like, her high school friends but - and accepting what her parents want.
ALI: A hundred percent. She's fully engaged in her community. She fully engaged in going to the dance practices and going to - doing a big dance at her brother's very, very South Asian - specifically Pakistani - wedding. You see her fully engaged in going to the mosque and taking part in a religious prayer there and being part of that community, going to those Eid celebrations. So there's no note of these people, this culture oppresses me and I'm in direct conflict with them. We're never, ever driven by the idea that I want to reject all of this. No, she loves all of this. She wants to be part of saving all of this. And that was really important to us.
BRIGER: One of the funny lines that sums up her parents' attitude - her dad says, we trust you; we just don't trust anyone else (laughter).
ALI: (Laughter) Yes. And I think what's really been a joy is hearing a lot of people from Pakistani backgrounds - and I think a lot of second-generation backgrounds - generally responding, being like, yep, I've had this word-for-word dialogue with my parents. It's like you've been - you're inside my teenage living room. And that response of, it's not that we don't trust you; it's that we don't trust everybody else, is - in the moment, there's a lot of levity there.
But also, that speaks to the immigrant experience, too, is that we don't know how to trust anybody else. We haven't been fully accepted into this place. There is - there are points of division that maybe I don't even have the eloquence to explain what they are, but I don't feel like it's safe for you in this world because of this journey that we've made. And so there's so much on both sides of even a comment like that that speaks to exactly where her parents have come from, what their journey has been, and influences how they then want to protect their children, too.
BRIGER: I mean, the scenes with their family are just wonderful to watch. And what I really like about the show is that the superpowers are really just, like, another thing she has to deal with. Like, she's got school. She's got her family. She's trying to learn to drive. Maybe there are some romantic issues coming. And then, she's also got this, like, cosmic energy that shoots from her hands. Like, it's just another thing.
And at one point, she's in school. She's not really in control of her powers at this point. And she - at the end of class, like, her powers show up on her notes. It's almost like a big zit appears on her nose, and...
BRIGER: She rushes to the bathroom trying to get it together 'cause she's hiding this. And her friend misunderstands what's going on and hands her a tampon, like, over the stall. Like, that's a really funny scene. It uses those powers as a metaphor for, like, all the complications of growing up and adulthood.
ALI: That's exactly it. It was really important. That's something that exists in the comics in a big way that felt really important to me and why I was so drawn to the material anyway, was that her powers and what happens to her and the superhero element of this really reflects on where she is psychologically, where she is in her maturity, where she is as a teenager, and what's the worst case scenario in all of the scenarios. And it's being - as you say, it's having a zit on your face, and it's - but this is a big, cosmic zit. Your nose is expanding and looking very cosmic. So that was incredibly important to us, that these are so specific, teen problems that this girl is having. And I think that's the glory of us being allowed to make a TV show in the context of this wider, huge storytelling web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
BRIGER: When you were writing the show, did you have an ideal viewer in mind in your head?
ALI: Oh, gosh. Certainly at the beginning, we wanted to capture a broad audience, but we also, on a very personal level, were writing for people like us. We were writing for people who rarely get to see themselves be the protagonists, who have suffered from a history of poor media representation in the West for decades. So, yes, there was a kind of a general broader audience. But there's also a very specific niche audience, too, that we're speaking to, and that - there are some elements in the show where if you don't know, you just don't know. And that's us speaking to them. And it's really a love letter to all of those people - to fans and to young women especially.
But there's also a certain subsection within that that's - there's stuff there that people from a Muslim background are really going to pick up on. There's stuff there that people from a South Asian background will really pick up on. And then even more granular - specifically, a Pakistani background will pick up on. And even more granular than that - specifically, a Sindhi Pakistani family. So that was our intention, to speak to everybody but also have kind of coded love letters to all different types of groups within that.
BRIGER: Yep. That's exactly how I felt. Like, I really enjoyed watching your show, but sometimes, I felt like how I feel when I'm driving my almost-teen daughter and her friends to soccer practice...
ALI: (Laughter) Mmm-hmm.
BRIGER: ...Where, like, I'm not catching all the references. They're talking too quickly for me. I don't know the music. They're not necessarily talking to me. But I just really love the experience. Like, I wouldn't give up driving to soccer practice for anything. I felt the same way about the show.
ALI: I think that's great. Yeah. I think the other thing is it should speak to parents as well in terms of those relationships. And I think, yes, we're speaking to teenagers, but I think, suddenly, parents kind of have sat up a little bit at that point and said, yes, I'm not just a parent. I'm also a child of - like, a long - I'm in a long line of daughters...
BRIGER: I had my rebellious period, too, and - yeah. So as you said, there's, like, these layers of jokes. There's inside jokes, cultural jokes for people who are Muslim, for people - families from South Asia. And there's a funny scene I would like to walk through with you a little bit, hopefully without killing the jokes.
BRIGER: There is - Episode 2, there's an Eid festival at the - I think it's a parking lot outside the mosque. And Kamal and her friend Nakia are explaining the cliques at the mosque. And the camera's, like, sprinting through the festival, showing these cliques. We won't go through all of them, but there was a couple I just wanted to ask you about. The first two are the mosque bros who are wearing, like, mostly Western clothes, and they're standing in front of a sports car, like twirling basketballs. And then...
ALI: There's always a group of them with sports cars. I'm like, guys, where'd you - where are you getting this money for these cars from?
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
BRIGER: And then you compare them to the pious boys who are wearing, like, kaftans and, like, are handing out free Qurans. And you say that, like, the mosque bros don't respect the halal gap, but the pious boys are all about the halal gap. So can you explain what the halal gap is?
ALI: The halal gap (laughter) is kind of a colloquialism amongst younger people where it's just sort of a respectful distance, like just a physical space that isn't too in your space, between people who might be attracted to each other. And so the mosque bros, they don't know how to respect the halal gap. They don't know how to give you your space. You're kind of - invading your personal space, essentially. And halal being kind of wholly unacceptable under God (laughter).
And then the halal gap with the pious boys, they are nothing but the halal gap - i.e., they'll stand two meters...
ALI: ...From you so that they make sure they're respecting the halal gap to the extent where you have to shout to communicate with each other. So it's a little play on that. And the - I think what's fun about it is, if you know what the halal gap is, it's funny, and if you don't, hopefully you can understand...
BRIGER: You can get it. Right.
ALI: ...By the difference between these two groups of boys that we've just seen. Yeah.
BRIGER: Yeah. And then there's the mini harami girls. Who are they?
ALI: Yes. Mini harami girls - like, they're just up to slightly naughty stuff, just slightly naughty things, you know? They're not...
BRIGER: So they're just misbehaving kids.
ALI: Essentially. And they're not so - harami means, like, it's kind of not good under God. I'm doing a very, very basic definition there (laughter). But the mini harami girls are just kind of doing tiny, little things here and there. Nothing that we'd get in too much trouble for. But just kind of their energy in that scene is adorable. And in our heads in the writers room, we were just saying, as we're breaking - doing this breakdown, which is very much a homage to "Mean Girls," we're looking at how the - their behavior isn't kind of - they're not going to get in trouble for it, but we all know that they're the mini harami girls, and they're on track for more haram things if they're not careful.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Gotcha. Well, I think what's interesting is earlier you said there's all these layers of inside jokes for people who've grown up South Asian or Muslim and different communities. And so those are inside jokes in that - but then sometimes you take the time to explain something to a larger audience, which I think sounds like one of those moments where you're thinking deeply about - how will this be understood by other people?
And I thought an interesting scene of that is between Kamala and Nakia in the bathroom when they're talking about why Nakia wears a headscarf. So I just wanted to play the scene 'cause I thought it was interesting, and we could talk about it afterwards. And Nakia is played by Yasmeen Fletcher. So let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MS. MARVEL")
VELLANI: (As Kamala Khan) Everything's just changing really fast, Naks (ph). You feel like you can't keep up? I know it's dumb. But...
YASMEEN FLETCHER: (As Nakia Bahadir) Are you kidding? Between the hijab and the girlies, my parents can barely make eye contact with me anymore.
VELLANI: (As Kamala) How are you making it look so easy?
FLETCHER: (As Nakia) Easy? It's definitely not easy. My whole life, I've either been too white for some people or too ethnic for others. And it's been this very uncomfortable, sucky in-between. So when I first put this on, I was hoping to shut some people up. But I kind of realized I don't really need to prove anything to anybody. Like, when I put this on, I feel like me, like I have a purpose. It's probably why I ran for the Mosque Board. And remember; you're the one who convinced me to do it in the first place.
VELLANI: (As Kamala) I love you.
FLETCHER: (As Nakia) I love you, too.
BRIGER: So, Bisha, that seems like a scene that's doing some work.
ALI: (Laughter) It is, indeed. It's doing push-ups.
ALI: Yes, absolutely. I think when we see characters with a hijab, historically, it's usually portrayed as a tool of oppression - right? - and that it's not someone's choice or that it's something that - narratively, at some point, they're going to take off their hijab, and now they've self-actualized, and now I know how to assimilate, and I can be free and live my own life. And I...
BRIGER: You imagine, like, wind blowing through someone's hair or something like that.
ALI: Precisely, yeah. And look; I said that quite flippantly for effect in this interview. But in reality, there is a narrative like that that exists for someone out there. That's - I don't want to diminish that, actually. That's somebody's truth. And, you know, good luck to them. But it is the dominant narrative that we see when it comes to hijab. And I think that being the sole - when we talk about representation, I think I'm very mindful that one thing can't represent every single billion-plus Muslim experience, not at all. We can represent one story that's true to the characters in our show, and that has to be more than enough.
And this, for us, what felt really important was that this was a choice for her. She feels empowered by putting it on. This is something that her parents actively, in fact, were confused by her doing. And this is something that she really felt like, this makes me who I am, and I want this for myself. For young girls who have chosen for themselves to wear hijab, for them to see someone like them so they don't have to go and explain themselves at school all the time or when their friends or their peers are like, why - What's up with this? Who's forcing you to do it? This is just one example where they can kind of see themselves in Nakia, that, yes, that's how I feel about it.
And that felt so important to us. And there's been such a positive response to - women who wear hijab feeling like that when they saw that scene. So that was always the intention. And yes, it was doing a little work, but hopefully it pays off. She got gains (ph).
BRIGER: (Laughter) Well, we need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Bisha K. Ali, the head writer of the Marvel TV show "Ms. Marvel." We'll have more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Bisha K. Ali, the head writer for the Disney+ streaming series "Ms. Marvel."
So, Bisha, looming in the background of this show is Partition, when British colonial rule of India ended in 1947 and the independent self-governing countries of India and Pakistan were created. There are estimates that Partition displaced 15 million people. And I've seen estimates that up to 2 million people died in violent conflicts. One of your characters says that every Pakistan family has a Partition story. And your characters have a traumatic one. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you decided to make Partition central to the story?
ALI: Absolutely. Partition had such a huge impact. Those numbers you just stated are so high. And it's something that we don't really talk about. We don't really talk about it even in our own homes that much, in the homes of the people who are directly affected by it. And when I think about my experiences with that, my own family's experience with what happened during Partition, I think about stories that are snippets of things. And often, those snippets of stories are coming to you in times of - at times a bereavement. When someone passes away, suddenly there's, like, an opening. This door just starts getting cracked open. And the trauma of what happened, you're starting to hear pieces of it. If I'm kind of being really honest about this process, it was certainly the journey for a lot of us in the room in terms of bearing witness to what people we know and love have been through and what that means on a wider scale. And we put that out into the world.
BRIGER: I think what you said about how these kind of stories come in snippets, like, a door opens and then it closes - I think that a lot of immigrants leave countries because of something terrible they're leaving behind. And then they make - they have to make decisions about what to remember and what to honor about those experiences and what to forget. And then your characters are doing that very much. Kamala's mother doesn't want to really talk about things, her father maybe a little bit more. Can you talk about that process?
ALI: Yes, absolutely. So this idea of people wanting to share information, not wanting to share information is wrapped up in so much. Sometimes it's, I don't have the information. Or sometimes it's, I don't have the information, but the story that I do have is so damaging to me or so negatively affected my life that I want to put it away. And I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to touch it at all. And I do think that's connected some - to some degree to a more generalized immigrant experience, as you say, simply because, well, I moved to get away from this thing. This thing is so hard. And I don't know how to do the hard work of making a new life here while also addressing whatever came before. And I brought you here to not have to talk about it. And I think that's something that is - has been quite relatable to a lot of people.
After the show came out, people who've watched this with their own families - and I think the thing that was really impactful for us is, the writers kind of send each other messages back and forth, sharing these stories that people were posting online of, I never talked about this with my parents. Or they only mentioned a small snippet before. And we watched this show together, and we were able to open up that door. And that was really impactful for all of us because, like, that's what - we were kind of crying to ourselves in our WhatsApp group. And that was really so gratifying, to see that impact. But very specifically, say, for example, for me, even after the show came out, my mom texted me and was like - did I ever to tell you this? - and told me more stories from my own family.
BRIGER: This might be too personal to share, but is there anything about your family's story that you'd be willing to tell us?
ALI: There's one that stuck out to me that I knew from beforehand, and that was my mother's grandmother. And that during Partition, one thing that happened was - I mean, we don't depict this on the television show because Partition was far more violent than I have the capacity to depict, and far more complex. That's why we focus so much on an individual family story. But one of the elements that we kind of are tipping our hat towards is the fact that children would often be lost completely. Their parents were murdered right beside them. Or they simply got lost in the crush of people trying to leave at real time, because as you said, millions of people moving. And it was such a short period of time. It was very, very - like, less than a month when this actual movement was taking place, the majority of it. So the children getting lost from their families was something we were really thinking about a lot in the writing of it.
And part of it for me personally was that my mother's grandmother had been handed these six children and said that they're - we can't find their parents. They've lost their parents entirely. They've come off the train - some of them have come off a train where their parents are dead on those trains. And the kids have survived because of the actions of their parents. And then the children are here. And she ended up raising six of those children, who had no sense of who they were before. They don't know anything about their history before that date, before getting off those trains. They're traumatized by what they've just experienced. And so that was a story that always stuck with me, that there were these - this family of six children, who I don't know, I haven't kind of - I'm not connected to them in a deep way. But my great-grandmother just raised them because they were handed over to her. And I thought, what a responsibility for her to feel that someone needs to care for these children. What a moment for these children that have all lost any semblance of what a family is before that moment.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Bisha K. Ali, head writer for the Disney+ series "Ms. Marvel." The miniseries has concluded, but all of the episodes are streaming. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECT TRIO'S "SHIR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Bisha K. Ali, head writer for the Disney+ mini series "Ms. Marvel," which ended last week but continues to stream. "Ms. Marvel" stars Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenage girl living with her Pakistani immigrant parents in Jersey City and dealing with the things teens have to deal with but also learning that she has superpowers and has to fight off supervillains and governmental law enforcement agencies. Before "Ms. Marvel," Ali wrote for another Marvel Comics-related show, "Loki," and Mindy Kaling's TV reboot of "Four Weddings And A Funeral." She's also a stand-up comedian.
BRIGER: Bisha, "Ms. Marvel" has gotten a lot of positive reviews from critics, and there seems to be a lot of fans of the show. However, that's been somewhat blemished by people review bombing the show. Can you explain what review bombing is?
ALI: I can explain what review bombing is. I think - well, can I? I don't know. I don't know what motivates it. Essentially...
BRIGER: Well, just the act itself.
ALI: I think the act - now I'm sort of - what's the Urban Dictionary definition of review bombing - sort of piling on negative reviews on online outlets without any kind of filters or stopgaps or checks that these are legitimate reviews and piling on in the thousands on just one-star reviews, whether people have watched it or not. I think that's the - I think it's kind of malicious negative reviews, not based on necessarily having watched it. I mean, if they did watch it and then gave it one star, you know, that's their prerogative. But it certainly feels like...
BRIGER: They seem to happen, like, right immediately when a show is released. So it...
BRIGER: ...Seems unlikely that people have actually watched the show.
ALI: Thank you for your reassurance. I appreciate you.
BRIGER: So this...
ALI: I would push back on the phrasing, however. I don't know that the critical reviews and the critical response and the people who have had really, in some cases, profound connection with what the show has done, I don't think there's a blemish by the fact that the review bombs exist. I think...
BRIGER: OK. Fair enough. I'll accept that.
ALI: They exist - thank you (laughter).
BRIGER: This sort of thing seems to happen to shows in the, like, science fiction comic book genre that feature actors of color, especially if they're playing roles that in the past were played by white actors or sometimes if women take on roles that were once played by men. When I was doing research about you, like, I very quickly found negative YouTube videos about how you were this, quote, "radical feminist" that was going to ruin this comic book or stuff like that. And...
ALI: (Laughter) I think what's really funny - the bit that makes me laugh is saying that I'm anti-capitalist, radical feminist, and I was like, imagine what kind of anti-capitalist I must be if I was working for Disney (laughter).
BRIGER: For Disney, yeah.
ALI: And that really makes me laugh. I don't know why.
BRIGER: You're tearing things down working for Disney.
ALI: Yeah, really sticking it to the man at one of the oldest and biggest corporations there is. Yeah.
BRIGER: So you grew up in a suburb of London called Hounslow. Can you describe what it's like there?
ALI: I partially grew up in Hounslow. There was quite a large South Asia community there, both Pakistani community and an Indian community, too. But I went to school in Twickenham, which wasn't too far away, which was not as ethnically diverse at all, and I would say relatively so still to this day. But certainly, Hounslow, I was seeing people like me all over the place and - which was lovely. I also kind of grew up between Hounslow in London, and also we sort of spent our summers in the U.K., and then the school year, my father ended up working in Saudi Arabia teaching at a university. So we spent a lot of time there. So my schooling was - actually a lot of it was in Saudi Arabia. And then in winter, we were kind of sort of staying with my father's family in Pakistan. So I really grew up between three countries until about the age of 12 or 13, and then we fully settled in Hounslow. So it was quite a disjointed way to be in the world.
BRIGER: What was your family like? Did they both work or...
ALI: Yes, my mother is a teacher, so she taught reception age. I think that you might call that kindergarten. And my father trained as a doctor and then with his qualification from Pakistan - in the U.K. at the time that he emigrated, he wasn't able to - they wouldn't allow him to practice. And so that was incredibly frustrating for him, of course, and that's how we ended up in Saudi Arabia, that he ended up lecturing at a university there in epidemiology. So he's been thrilled putting those skills to use in the past few years. So he was - his specialty was public health or epidemiology.
BRIGER: What was it like for you to be moving from England to Saudi Arabia every year? Like, that must have been sort of cultural whiplash.
ALI: Yes, very much moving between these three countries, England, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, was this constant whiplash. And I think what - and I can - looking back at it now, I can see what the impact was in some ways. And at the time, I think I felt so disconnected from every group that I was entering into because I was witnessing different ways of life everywhere. And I was doing kind of judgement free because I was so used to this movement between the three of them. And yet they didn't make sense all together. The three different places, children living in complete different lifestyles - different socioeconomic profiles as well is what I was a big part of in these different places where I was so confused by that. I couldn't understand how I was supposed to, as a child - from child brain, there was so much - there was some poverty that I'd witnessed, I've been really close to and a kind of a way of life that kind of was so jarring with then going to school in Twickenham in London. Absolutely bizarre. And it was hard for me to then connect to these kids because, like, your concerns are so facile compared to what I've just lived through somewhere else. And I think that disconnection as a kid, I could not - I couldn't figure out how to ingratiate myself in any of those communities in any real way. So I think what - and it sounds negative, but I ended up kind of being raised by television and movies and getting lost in all of that. And that's how I ended up who I am.
BRIGER: Yeah, that's...
ALI: But the piece - yeah.
BRIGER: Yeah. No, I was wondering about that because I read you had grown up being raised by television. So that was the reason because you didn't really fit in to any of those three places, you felt.
ALI: I just didn't have a - I think I didn't have a cohesive narrative in the real world (laughter). And so television and film really gave me a lot of that. I'd also say that my parents were lovely but quite strict. And the kind of - the idea of go over to a friend's house to play was sort of what (laughter)? I don't - this is not computing for me. So I spent a lot of time watching TV and film, and they loved TV and film, too. It's not something that we actively spoke about, but they were the ones putting on horror movies or science fiction. My mom was a huge Trekkie, so kind of I was really inheriting a lot of that from them as well. But I think one of the things that that movement and living in that way kind of gave to me was I became an observer very early. I became an observer of how other people lived in the world, how they - how then I - I was also observing myself of, oh, why can't I figure out how to move in these different spaces? And I was an observer of my parents in these different environments, too, very quickly. So some might call it dissociation. I call it becoming very observant very early.
BRIGER: (Laughter) So you you studied economics at university, but at some point, you went on to become a stand-up comedian. How did you make that switch?
ALI: Very painfully. I think I was always trying to prove something to someone. In terms of academic achievement, I was always - I got pretty good grades. And it was always a given in terms of my family environment that you're going to go to university and then succeed and get a safe job, and we're all going to live happily ever after, and you're not going to have to worry about money the way that we had to. And that was really clear to me. And as I went on, I felt like I was proving everything that I wanted to prove. And I'd - sure, great. I'd done this, and I'm really proud of it, and I'm so lucky to be in this situation. But I just had this feeling of just discomfort of - I don't feel happy. I don't know how - I mean, I don't know that I've 100% got it right now, but I just don't feel happy in what I'm spending my days doing.
But that desire of being able to tell stories and share stories with people was always there and never went away from when I was a kid, all the way up to studying - I mean, studying is a very generous term for what I did at university - studying economics and then going on to - I was working at The Economist very briefly and then all kinds of other jobs. And I just could not imagine doing this for the rest of my life.
And I remember there was - one point I was working on a team that was - there are these indices in the back of The Economist magazine. And it used to be a two-page spread of indices of the markets, and I was part of the team that was calculating new - formulating new formulas for how this was going to get calculated. And I remember the team, the editorial team, once said, Bisha, you're doing a really great job. In a few years, I can imagine you working on my team. And I just thought, oh, God, no. Please, no (laughter). And that was really, genuinely, a turning point. I remember - I had, like, a - even just describing it, I have, like, a visceral sense memory of that moment. And I think, like, I can't do this. This can't be what happens for me. And so I just decided I'm going to go for it. I'm going to try and tell stories in my own way. And stand-up was really my kind of door into that.
BRIGER: You know, there's a point in your show where Kamala reveals to her parents that she's - has superpowers. And you just - you said that your parents are - were pretty strict and wanted you to have, like, a solid, regular day job. Was there a point where you had to reveal to them that you were actually a stand-up comedian?
ALI: Oh, my gosh. Yes, there was. Let's not relive it.
ALI: I think my parents were really supportive of me being a storyteller in some capacity. They loved the idea of me being a writer especially. I think the idea of stand-up to them was a world of bars and clubs and spaces that you don't actually see very many - especially at that time, any women in, let alone women who look like me and who are my age. I was quite young when I started, in relative terms. So the world is really - looks unsafe to them. And they're not wrong (laughter), having done it for eight years. They're not completely wrong in their fears. And I think you could say that for a lot of the comedy scene, full stop.
So it was - I think it was hard for them to understand, A, the desire - why on Earth would you want to do this? - and, B, in terms of the strictness, it was so far removed from their experience of me, from what I kind of was able to share with them growing up of who I - parts of who I am. So I think that was really difficult for my dad especially to kind of be like, what is - what are we talking about here?
But certainly, it was - the idea of me telling stories and being a writer, it was very, very - they were really behind that. They've always been behind that in some capacity. But again, they don't have the exposure to - whether it's in media, in publishing or TV or film, they don't really know - and neither did I - well, how do you even get into any of this?
ALI: What does that even look like, that your job is to write? To write? What does that look like? How is that going to support you? So I think that was a really - that was really hard for them because of - I think that was driven by kind of love and from fear of the unknown. But they've come around now. They're all right.
BRIGER: Well, Bisha K. Ali, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.
ALI: It's been my absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Bisha K. Ali is the head writer of the Disney+ Plus series "Ms. Marvel." The miniseries concluded last week, but all the episodes are streaming.
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has spent time this summer stuck at crowded airports and in airplanes, putting up with the now-typical delays. Coming up, she'll talk about figuring out what kind of book stood a chance of holding her attention. This is FRESH AIR.
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